At this time of year, when the perennial lists of “top issues for the new year” appear, it will be useful to remember that the financial services industry is challenged on many fronts, all of them to some degree intertwined, and all of them critical to restoring the health and sustainable growth of the industry. Financial institutions of all shapes and sizes are in a period of strategic transformation, and must necessarily attend to a wide range of issues simultaneously -- some more visible and fast-moving, others more fundamental and long-term -- in their recovery from the crisis of the past five years.
Rather than isolate a small group of "top" issues, therefore, as if they were the only or most important challenges financial institutions should address next year, another perspective suggests that there are several dimensions in which one can present and discuss these interdependent challenges. An advantage of this perspective is that it reveals the relative degrees of urgency, breadth and impact among the numerous issues facing the industry. All need attention, but to different tenors and timeframes.
The first and most visible dimension (though not necessarily the most important) includes the “current” or “hot” issues in the industry media and conferences. They typically revolve around the latest technology or political/regulatory trend, and while often urgent, are not always strategic. They tend to be the relatively fast-moving issues that change from year to year. The list for 2013 will include:
-- incorporating mobile banking as a regular delivery channel
-- developing a strategy around social media
-- coming to permanent resolution with the regulatory issues of 2012, such as Dodd-Frank, Basel and the CFPB -- dealing with the economic aftermath of the “fiscal cliff,” whichever way it turns out
A second dimension of issues is more complex and more regular, involving those recurring financial and competitive industry issues that financial institutions deal with every year. Now, however, they are in a new economic context as the industry emerges from the financial crisis:
-- how to come to a new level of growth and sustainable profitability in an environment of low interest rates
-- rebuilding asset quality and strengthening their capital adequacy
-- where to develop new and reliable sources of revenue
-- enriching and increasing the business value of customer relationships, at a time when customer behaviors and expectations are more demanding
-- restoring public confidence in the industry
-- how to deal with aggressive and innovative non-bank competitors
-- embedding a risk management culture into the fabric and habit of daily operations
A third dimension concerns the ever more critical need for financial institutions to transition their technology architectures to next-generation capabilities, putting in place the enablers for all the issues listed above. Banks, thrifts and credit unions now need to approach technology no longer as an expense to be managed down, but more as an investment for future growth. By focusing less on specific systems and applications, and more on enterprise-wide capabilities, they need to address such challenges such as:
-- implementing fully digital banking
-- filling manual gaps and delivering straight-through, efficient business processes
-- enterprise-level integration and management of data -- interactive customization of products and services to meet customer demands
-- transparency in costs, compliance and prices
While of course there are always going to be emerging technologies that capture our fancy and media attention (right now it’s probably mobile banking), these are really only the superficial toys that reflect the deeper and more significant trends in the financial services industry’s reliance on technology. The emerging technologies of importance are therefore those that will enable the flexibility, adaptability, integration, standardization and efficiency that the transformation described above will demand.
Which is what brings us to the fourth dimension, and the one that in many respects is the most important. It involves the fundamental and strategic "below the radar" transformation of the banking business model that is taking place in the industry, and how institutions need to respond to it. Technology is and has been changing the currency of exchange in financial services away from a pure focus on money, which is actually now just a blip on a computer, and toward information as the basis of products and services. Financial institutions will need to become data-centric organizations, revolving their assets and processes around the needs of customers – no longer around the profitability of products and siloed business lines.
This transformation will necessarily force institutions to address as well what their core markets and customer segments will be for the future. They will need to streamline to a smaller and more specialized market niche as it becomes unrealistic for them to expect to remain all things to all people.
In effect, therefore, there will be only one overriding challenge for financial institutions in 2013 – how to stay disciplined and remain attentive to all of the above issues simultaneously.
Lee Kidder is a practice director with CCG Catalyst